Jun 262012

As I have an especial love of poker books, I decided to do a round-up of my faves from then til now. Most of these aren’t really oddities, but they are books. We will begin with:

Education of a Poker Player by Hubert O. YardleyEducation of a Poker Player, Hubert O. Yardley (1957)

Probably the first poker book I ever read, I’ve had this one for years. Yardley presents it as his autobiography though one suspects that it is at the very least heavily fictionalized. The main part of the book recounts poker table tales from the narrator’s boyhood as apprenticed to the tough-but-fair Monty who runs a backroom poker game and at the end of every night (and every chapter) gives Yardley a lesson. His apprenticeship begins at the age of 16, in 1905! Generally these lessons can be summarized by “play tight” which is probably the best advice for the game as of 100 years ago, especially as played with drunken degenerate gamblers.

Great stories involving arcane rulings on such unlikely situations as “he died holding the winning hand – what do we do now?” Reminds me a bit of the film A Big Hand for the Little Lady (IMDB).

It is said that sooner or later everyone of any note comes to the Café de la Paix in Paris to sip a drink and watch the crowd. I read somewhere that a detective, looking for a murderer from Indianapolis, Indiana, took up a position at the Café, sure that his man would show up.

Well, the detective might just as well have chosen Monty’s Place. To my young mind, everyone of note came there to lose his money–itinerant trainmen, barbers, magicians, actors, jugglers, owners of shows, drummers, coal operators, land speculators, farmers, poultry-men, cattlemen, liverymen. And of course there were the usual town bastards, drug addicts, idiots, drunkards, not to mention the bankers, small businessmen, preachers, atheists and old soldiers. There was also Doc Prittle, the local sawbones, who bragged he’d taken a six-weeks’ course in medicine at Prairie City and had a diploma to show for it. (I can’t include the whores, because they were not admitted in Monty’s Place, where men could tell a dirty story without fear of offending feminine ears.)

The second part of the book takes place in China, where Yardley was working for the State Department as a spy–I guess during World War II, though possibly before the Americans were in Asia. In this section the book is slightly marred by the sort of patronizing racist attitude towards the inscrutable oriental that was typical of the time, but still enoyable, as in this passage:

The next morning we were on our way to the tailor’s, where I had ordered several suits of clothes. The tailor, while fitting me, began to jabber to Ling.

“What does he say?” I asked.

Ling spat judiciously, Western-style. “He wants to know what side of your trousers you wear your waterspout.”

“Well, I’ll be a son-of-a-bitch,” I said, imitating Monty after all these years. “Tell the bastard he flatters me.”

Next, the poker book sine qua non–the one that changed it all, yes of course I refer to the great

Super/System: A Course in Power Poker, Doyle Brunson (1978)

The virgule is actually absent from my copy. Nobody ever really knew why it was there, but they should never have removed it. Actually the original original title was How I Made Over $1,000,000 Playing Poker which is great. I remember seeing a book in the Loompanics catalog called Play Poker, Quit Your Job, and Sleep ’til Noon which I never read, but liked the look of. How to Play Poker, Quit Your Job and Sleep til NoonIn fact, the internet has helpfully provided a thumbnail of’t:

Anyhoo, that’s what we in the business call “digressive”. But, speaking of digressive, this calls to mine another excellent poker book I read some years back before Super/System. I sure can’t recall the title, all I remember was that it was dedicated to teaching how to beat your dear friends like red-headed stepchildren, using such gambits as late in the evening throwing a submarine sandwich into a big pot that you don’t want anyone folding “just for fun” etc. A fine book. If anyone comes across this post and can remember the title to me, well, that would be dandy. I was recently watching the PokerStars.net Big Game on pokertube.com (nobody paid me to say so, by the way) and one of the pros referenced that very gimmick from that book but sadly they didn’t recall the title neither.

Now, Super/System. The great Doyle Brunson, one of the (if not the) old-school all-round Texas road gamblers, edited this hefty slab of formerly occult poker know-how with contributions from other top players, each explaining the ins and outs of the different varieties of the game, with chapters on draw, stud, lowball, razz, eck cetra.

The typography in this book is fantastic. I would guess these are reprinted from the original galleys and thankfully it’s never been re-typeset. Headings in Cooper Black, frequent Capitalization For Effect, bold and italic formatting applied liberally (/randomly), etc.

Apart from the type, the caricatures of the authors at the start of every chapter, and of course, the great poker folklore, Super/System is full of great advice on how to think about poker–probability, bankroll management and psychology, as well as the particulars of each different type of game.

Doyle Brunson's _Super System_For many people, Super/System was their first introduction to playing poker analytically, to win. Initially, I think Brunson caught a lot of flack from poker pros who thought he was giving away trade secrets, but as this book played a part in ushering in the current huge popularity of the game, they soon changed their tune. My impression is that something similar happened with the popularization of card-counting in the blackjack world. For every successful card-counter able to turn a profit, there are plenty of degenerate gambler types who half-ass card-counting to the casinos’ advantage.


Few people realize who intensely competitive you must be to become a good Poker player. I couldn’t play Poker just for fu, and I don’t think many of the top Professionals could. I’ve always played to win, and whenever I could discover any bad habits, I’ve tried to eliminate them just as I would try to eliminate mistakes in a business I might be running.

Use your best game against anybody you play. Many of the top Pros are close friends, but they almost never give each other a break in a game. Sailor Roberts, for instance, is one of the best friends I’ve ever had. He helped pick me up when I was young and unknown and broke. But when I play cards with Sailor, I do my level best to cut his throat and he tries to cut mine. It’s been like that from the time we met. In fact, the first time we played he broke me.

In the trade, this characteristic is called Alligator Blood, and it is highly valued and respected. It means you’ll do anything within the rules to win. You try to have special moves, such as making a slow, hesitant call in place of a fast call, when a man might bet at you again (after the next card is turned up in Hold ‘em). You might set a trap for him by leading him to believe you’re betting a hand which is a slight favorite, when you actually have a hand that’s practically unbeatable.

I go into a Poker game with the idea of completely destroying it.

(Doyle Brunson)

Super System 2: A Course in Power Poker, Doyle Brunson (2005)

Next “the most anticipated book in the history of poker”, which may not have been hyperbole. Saner typography, virgule permanently exiled from title, caricatures, illustrations and photos more professional. So the presentation is a bit of a letdown. However, the content is excellent. Includes a chapter by Doyle’s son Todd on 7-Stud. Also chapters by Jennifer Harman, Daniel Negreanu, Johnny Chan, and others.

My favorite part is a series of lessons from the Mike Caro University of Poker (www.poker1.com). Doyle credits Caro as the best 5-Card Draw player in the history of the game. He’s known for his creative approach to the game. He used to be known as “Mad Man Mike Caro” because of his technique of babbling incessant nonsense and making seemingly nonsensical bluffs, blind bets, etc. The method to his madness was four-fold (at least!). First of all, playing with someone who seems to be crazy is distracting, even if you suspect he’s not quite as crazy as he pretends to be. Secondly, under cover of crazy chatter, he could subtly influence the other players’ impression of his holding. For instance, with a high two pair he might draw one card, put out a very large bet and then babble along the lines of “You’re probably wondering if I made my flush or not, well, let me tell you, I did. Ace-high flush! Fantastic! Or maybe I have nothing at all in which case I’ll be pretty sorry if you make the call I guess, but I’m not too worried, because I do have it so I know I’ve got you anyhow unless I’m making a complete bluff.” He has talked his opponent into considering the decision as a binary one – either he made his flush or he’s bluffing. The opponent has seen him make plenty of crazy plays or at least *represent* crazy plays effectively so he thinks it’s fairly likely that Caro missed; after all, that draw is only 20% likely to hit! A player with a saner table image would not be able to be so blatant about this manipulation. Caro also does things like root for his opponent. He plays as well as he can in order to win, but in the process he roots for his opponent to get lucky. He says this makes it easier for him to have fun as he plays because it means he’s happy no matter whether he wins or the other guy does. It’s also a way of psychologically reinforcing the principle that if you play properly, you’ll tend to win – it’s not about what happens in any one pot. Here are a few of Mike’s excellent tips:

MONEY YOU DON’T LOSE… buys just as many things as money you win

…Here’s the way I explain the concept at live seminars. If you’re losing $9,225 ina $50/$100 limit game, it probably won’t feel much different to you if you lose $9,925 instead. Even though logically you know that the difference is $700, emotionally it doesn’t seem like $700 you can spend. When you lose $9,225, you’re thinking of that money no longer being available. Same goes for losing $9,925. You’re not thinking that you can spend anything, in either case. But you can!

If you lost just $9,225, you’d still have $700 to spend that you wouldn’t have i fyou had lost $9,925. Obvious, I know. But the difference doesn’t feel like much in the heat of poker combat. When you began playing for the day, though, you would have felt that you were ahead if you’d won $700 – obviously. That’s because it would be very clear to you that you have $700 extra to buy things with. Well, the same is true if you play as well as you can when you’re running bad and cut the loss by $700 through superior play. You have $700 to spend, even though, in our example, you lost over $9,000.

If you’re unable to see it that way, maybe this will help. Suppose you were having a really rotten year and had lost $240,000. Now a genie pops out of a bottle. Don’t snicker – this actually happens to me regularly. The genie says “Wanda,” assuming your name is Wanda, which it might not be, “I can rewrite history and make you even for the year.”

You say, “That’s great, genie! Thank you so very much!”

“There’s just one thing I need to know.”

“I knew there was a catch,” you complain.

“Just tell me,” the genie continues, ignoring your unappreciative remark, “whether you want me to rewrite history by adding a little to each of your wins, so that they total $240,000 more, or take a little from each of your losses so that they total $240,000 less.”

Immediately you blurt, “I don’t care, genie. It doesn’t matter. Just do it.”

And then you recognize the meaning of your words. It really doesn’t matter, because saving a little from each loss – even a big loss – is just as important as adding to a win. It’s not amost the same money or theoretically the same money, but exactly the same money. And once you realize the truth of this, you will always play poker with the same amount of care, whether you’re winning or losing. It always matters equally.


IF YOU AVERAGE A BIG PROFIT BY CALLING… you’re not calling enough!

(I love this one – I’m reminded of the corollary I’ve heard before, which is that if you find your bluffs never get picked off you aren’t bluffing enough. Both of these are illustrations of the pitfalls of “results-orientated” thinking, that is to say looking at an individual success and being happy about it rather than looking at the overall profitability of your play as a whole. So if your bluffs are always successful, you tend to think of yourself as very good at bluffing rather than realizing that if you are missing bluff opportunities, you are losing equity)

POKER’S STUPIDEST QUESTION: “Why didn’t you quit when you were $17,000 ahead?”

…Here’s the main reason that “Why didn’t you quite when you were $17,000 ahead?” is the stupidest question in poker: When you win $50,000, nobody ever asks it.

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